CHICAGO Feb 6 In recent months, Chipotle has
lost customers, sales and profits after outbreaks of foodborne
illnesses that sickened more than 500 people from Seattle to
The burrito chain will shut its 1,900 U.S. restaurants on
Monday for a meeting with employees to review a rapid overhaul
of practices that it hopes will eliminate outbreaks of E. coli,
Salmonella and norovirus.
But there is no easy way to know whether the fast food
chain's safety record is any better or worse than that of other
major restaurant chain.
Food safety investigations in the United States begin - and
often end - at the local level, and some states limit the
disclosure of implicated restaurants, keeping diners in the
Federal public health investigators get involved only when
multi-state outbreaks are identified. A publicly available
national database identifies tainted foods and pathogen
culprits, but it would not help a consumer who wants to know
whether one restaurant chain has a better safety record than
"There is not a surveillance system that exists nationally
that answers that question," said Matthew Wise, who leads the
team investigating multi-state outbreaks at the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Roughly 48 million people, one in six U.S. residents, are
sickened by tainted food each year and nearly 3,000 die.
Food safety advocates say more information would help.
The development of a national database of safety scores broken
out by chain could motivate restaurants to improve and maintain
high standards, said Darin Detwiler, senior policy coordinator
for STOP Foodborne Illness.
"We just want to know about the bad apples so we can avoid
them," said Detwiler, whose young son died in a 1993
Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak that killed four children and
sickened more than 700 people.
But Jeffrey Duchin, a Seattle, Washington public health
official, said a national system for tracking restaurants by
outbreaks could give consumers the wrong impression about where
they can safely eat.
"Just looking at the ones that might have been reported with
an outbreak that was detected would be a very biased sample,"
In Chipotle's case, sales slid about 36 percent in January
after falling by 14.6 percent in the fourth quarter. And the
company said last week that a federal criminal probe linked to a
food safety incident at a California restaurant has now widened
into a national investigation.
Founder and co-Chief Executive Steve Ells boldly pledged in
December to make Chipotle the safest place to eat. Asked later
how the company would demonstrate it had met the goal, a
spokesman said that executives were "less concerned about how we
might rank that, and more concerned about reducing risk to a
level near zero."
NATIONAL CHAINS, LOCAL FOCUS
The first Chipotle outbreak hit diners of a Seattle
restaurant in late July. Health officials learned of the E. coli
illnesses in early August and linked them to the Chipotle outlet
within days. But by that time, the alarm was over: The
incubation period had passed, and no additional patients were
expected, health officials said.
Local officials reported the outbreak to the state, which
performed DNA testing to identify the E. coli strain. The
Seattle cases only came to the CDC's attention because the
agency happened to have a team at the Seattle health department
in August on another matter, Duchin said.
"It didn't seem like anything remarkable at the time," he
Last month, Seattle's public health department began
publishing more details about routine foodborne illness cases on
its website in response to public demands for more information,
spokesman James Apa said.
He said the information released includes the names of
restaurants linked to routine outbreaks, a departure from the
department's previous practice of naming restaurants only when
there is an identified, ongoing danger to the public. The change
was under discussion before Chipotle's problems.
In Minnesota, where Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks were
linked to Chipotle outlets, officials do not always publicly
release the names of implicated restaurants, partly because of a
belief that it might discourage operators from cooperating with
investigations, said Kirk Smith of the Minnesota Department of
In September, Minnesota officials decided to announce their
investigation of Salmonella infections linked to Chipotle
because, they said, there were a large number of cases and many
affected people do not seek healthcare or get tested.
The CDC's National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) gathers
data on food and waterborne pathogens from states according to
the type of pathogen and the setting of infection, such as
hospital cafeterias, nursing homes or restaurants. Names of
establishments are not included or sought.
NORS is a database rather than an investigative tool, used
by the agency to identify outbreak patterns.
Apart from NORS, the CDC participates in foodborne illness
investigations when they involve outbreaks in multiple states,
said Wise, who oversees those efforts. About 25 such outbreaks
are identified each year, mostly involving food producers.
Even though multistate cases account for just 3 percent of
all outbreaks, they are responsible for half of all food
poisoning deaths. No deaths have been reported in the Chipotle
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Tom Polansek in Chicago;
Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Lisa Girion)